What Is Chafed Skin?

Chafed skin is caused by the frequent and recurrent friction that occurs when there is skin-on-skin rubbing in any area of the body. It can lead to redness and irritation in areas such as the inner thighs, under the arms, buttocks, groin, and nipples.

Preventing skin chafing can be as simple as keeping areas of the body that tend to rub together dry, using a lubricant that can reduce friction such as petroleum jelly, and dressing appropriately to reduce further irritation or skin-on-skin rubbing.

Young Woman Jogging on Brisbane Southbank

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Symptoms

Many areas of the body can be affected by chafing, including the breast, nipples, underarms, thighs, groins, buttocks, and feet. Symptoms of chafed skin tend to be mild in nature and can be easily managed without a visit to the doctor. In some cases, though, if the activity that led to the chafing continues, the symptoms can worsen and an infection may develop.

The symptoms of chafed skin can be mild or severe. More serious cases of chafed skin may be accompanied by small lesions that burn when touched.

Mild Symptoms

Mild symptoms of skin chafing may not be noticeable at first. They may only become obvious when the skin in the affected area rubs against another surface.

These symptoms can include:

  • A hot feeling over the affected area
  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Excessive irritation
  • Itching

When the chafing begins to heal, you may notice an itchy sensation as the skin repairs itself. Chafed skin tends to clear up between one to two days as long as it is treated immediately. If you leave chafed skin unattended or continue to participate in activities that exacerbate it, the chafed area can take longer to heal or become worse over time.

Severe Symptoms

Severe symptoms of skin chafing may show up after a strenuous exercise routine or if mild chafing symptoms were not treated with proper care. Welts may form in the affected areas after not only the top layer of the skin but also the lower layers and, in some cases, muscles are injured by repeat friction on the affected area.

Severe symptoms of chafed skin include:

  • Swelling of the affected area
  • Cracked or broken skin
  • Bleeding
  • Blisters or sores

Cracked, broken, or bleeding skin is an indication that the skin has been worn down to an extreme degree. It may require special care and antibiotic creams or ointments. Similarly, blisters or sores will require special care. They may need to be wrapped and protected to prevent them from popping and causing an open wound that could lead to an infection.

Causes

The skin can withstand a certain level of friction in daily activities like exercise, but there is a limit. When the skin continues to rub against other parts of the body or surfaces without pause, eventually chafing occurs. Some notable causes of the condition include:

  • Endurance exercise: Repeat motions involved in biking or running may lead to friction, while sweat can worsen the friction
  • Weight: For people who are overweight or obese, skin folds and chafing occur more regularly
  • Breastfeeding: Nursing a baby can cause the nipples to become irritated because of chafing caused by the baby feeding
  • Diapers: Babies are susceptible to diaper rash , also known as diaper dermatitis, a type of skin chafing that happens when an infant is subjected to the moisture of feces and urine for prolonged periods of time
  • Tight or ill-fitted clothes or shoes: If any area of your clothing rubs the skin the wrong way, it can cause skin chafing

Other factors like sensitive skin, hot weather, and excess moisture from sweat or water sports may also lead to chafed skin.

Complications

Chafing may be a common skin irritation, but it will progress to more serious skin conditions and infections if left unchecked.

Intertrigo

Severe chafed skin can lead to a type of dermatitis called intertrigo. Intertrigo is caused by folds of skin rubbing against each other in warm and moist areas of the body such as the groin.

The symptoms of chafed skin and intertrigo are similar, but intertrigo can be more severe and lead to a rash or oozing skin that is raw and itchy, a strong and unpleasant odor, and cracked skin. It can also lead to other complications such as a yeast or bacterial infection.

Satellite lesions (small areas of the same rash that are close to the main one) are characteristic of intertrigo. This skin condition also comes with a number of similar but worsened symptoms of chafing, such as:

  • Bleeding
  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Swelling and irritation
  • Blisters and sores
  • Crust
  • Other infections such as a yeast or bacterial infection
  • Odor

Intertrigo can lead to other skin infections that require further treatment, including Candida, Streptococcus, and erythrasma.

Infection

Because chafing can lead to the protective layer of the skin being damaged or destroyed, it can leave the body exposed to further infection if it is left untreated. Chafing is not a serious condition but it can lead to an infection if there is an open wound. Speak with a doctor about possible treatment and prevention options if there is bleeding, swelling, crusting of the skin, or discoloration.

The skin is a protective organ for the whole body. It needs to be in an optimal condition to avoid any lasting friction that could lead to damage. Chafing can become worse if the area is warm and moist since moisture can aid in the breaking down and damaging of the skin.

Fiction Burns

A severe form of chafing is often referred to as a friction burn, which is when the skin is scraped off through contact with another surface. A fiction burn is usually both an abrasion and a heat burn. Fiction burns may increase the risk of a skin infection because they often leave an open wound. They may result in temporary or permanent scarring of the skin.

Diagnosis

It is easy to self-diagnose skin chafing at home, especially in the case of mild irritation. The rash itself is red, and can present with mild or burning pain, especially when it is touched. It’s generally easy to distinguish between other rashes because of where it occurs on the body and its gradual onset. The rash becomes worse the more the skin chafes, so the progression and source can be easy to pin down. 

If you don't treat chafing or continue to participate in activities that make the skin in the affected area rub together or against surfaces, the chafed skin could become infected. Signs of infection include discoloration and crusting of the skin. If you suspect you might have an infection caused by skin chafing, contact your doctor right away for treatment options.

Treatment

When it comes to chafed skin, many people opt for home remedies because they are easily accessible and the nature of the rash is not severe. But medical treatment options are available if the rash progresses, and they should be explored in cases of infection.

Home Remedies

In a minor case of skin chafing, a home remedy and complete avoidance of any activity that will exacerbate the symptoms will be enough to get rid of the rash and painful burning from chafed skin. Before beginning treatment, you will want to clean the affected area thoroughly to keep infection at bay. There are a wide variety of creams that can help relieve the painful sensations that are customary with a bout of chafed skin, including:

  • Aloe vera treatment: Aloe vera is a succulent that has been known to soothe skin irritation, such as sunburns and wounds. Aloe vera can be found in a gel, or if you have an aloe vera plant, you can break off a leaf and take it directly from there to apply to the skin 
  • Petroleum jelly: To help reduce overall skin irritation and keep the chafing from getting worse, applying a layer of petroleum jelly has been shown to help curb symptoms of wounds and burns
  • Shea butter: To soothe the skin and help soften any roughness that may have been caused by chafing, shea butter is a great option. It has been shown to help reduce inflammation and induce healing of the skin
  • Corticosteroid creams: Mild corticosteroids can be purchased over the counter and be very effective in treating chafing of the skin.

Home remedies can be effective at treating mild cases of skin chafing, but if the condition doesn’t clear up after treatment, you may need to speak to your doctor about other options.

Medical Treatment

In the event that the chafing is more serious, a doctor may recommend a medicated ointment to help clear up the infection and soothe the pain and burning associated with chafed skin. A treatment regimen for each case will be different, so it’s important for those with severe or prolonged chafing to speak with a health care provider about options that work for them.

Prevention

Chafing can be prevented by following a series of simple steps. Limit moisture during exercise and daily life by using deodorants and moisture-wicking clothes. Reducing friction will also limit chafing, so wear loose-fitted clothing, use creams or powders that can lessen friction, and invest in anti-chafe creams. Chafing can also be minimized by applying a chafe-healing cream on the affected area before sleep.

Anti-chafing bands can be worn on the thighs to help prevent rubbing or friction, and specialized skin protectants similar to deodorants can help keep you chafe-free.

Coping

Chafing is a common and normal part of life, and the best way to cope with chafing is through prevention. Chronic chafing can occur for a variety of reasons, but it can be easy to manage. Take note of which area in your body is prone to chafe and which of your daily activities most often lead to chafing. Then plan on buying products and clothes that will be most effective at limiting chafing in your daily life. Weight management could also be an option if excess weight is the cause of chafing.

Practicing good personal hygiene is another way to prevent chafing from happening. Keep areas in the body where chafing happens most frequently dry and clean. For babies with a diaper rash, make sure to change their diapers more frequently or let the baby rest without a diaper for some periods of time. Speak to a pediatrician about the most suitable treatment options, especially if the baby's diaper rash is caused by an infection.

If chafing does occur even with preventive measures in place, treating the affected area immediately is important to preventing mild symptoms from progressing to severe ones and complications like infections.

A Word from Verywell

Skin chafing can happen to children and adults, and can be hard to deal with if it is recurrent or chronic. With the right prevention steps that limit chafing and moisture and effective at-home treatments, however, chafed skin can be easily managed. When chafing does happen, prompt treatment is necessary to limit the risk of an infection and prevent it from becoming a serious health problem.

A doctor can provide advice on solutions if an infection does occur. Investing in anti-chafe products can also be a good solution.

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